By Abby Williams
The smell of sawdust fills the air as Marv Lamb heads to his small office at Heritage Guitar for another day’s work. From his office chair he can hear the sound of a sander as it gently sweeps across the face of a guitar, the pounding of hammers as frets are put into their places and the sound of musical notes being strummed as guitars are tuned before being shipped out. Lamb had to work to earn his title as an owner of Heritage Guitar.
Born on a farm in Huntsville, Ala., Lamb grew up picking cotton with his parents and siblings. Lamb did this until he turned 15. It was at that age he decided to follow in his brother and sisters’ footsteps and move to Michigan to find a job. He decided on Kalamazoo.
“I wanted to find a job and make something of myself,” Lamb said.
Once in Kalamazoo, Lamb got a job at Schafer’s Bakery working as the oven boy for the night shift. After seven months of working in the heat, he decided to look elsewhere. He landed a day job at Gibson Guitar as the neck sander. Day in and day out, Lamb sanded guitar necks by hand for that day’s order. Eventually, he did every job in the shop. In 1984, 67 years after opening in Kalamazoo, Gibson Guitar decided to move to Nashville, Tenn. Lamb and his family drove down to Tennessee to look at houses; however, he came back with a different plan.
Heritage Guitar will celebrate another anniversary this April; it opened on April 1, 1985. Lamb, J.P. Moates and Jim Duerloo decided to stay in Kalamazoo and build guitars the old-fashioned way; by hand. Heritage, at 225 Parsons Street, is the only guitar shop in Kalamazoo that still does this. Other shops such as Gibson build guitars using machinery. Heritage employs 16 people who all work on the guitars. The company receives about five orders each day, from all over the world.
When Lamb, now 75, walked in to the shop on his first day of being part owner of Heritage Guitar, he said he felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. “It’s a tough goal to accomplish,” he said.
Guitars built by machinery are all built the same, but each guitar that’s built by hand is a little different, said Lamb. Lamb added that to explain the whole guitar process it would take up to two days. However, it starts with an order coming in, the employees make the parts with wood that comes from South America, the West Coast and parts of Europe. After the parts are assembled, the guitar is painted, the strings are attached and adjusted and the instrument is played before it leaves the shop. The time it takes to make a guitar varies on the different types of models. It can take anywhere from four weeks to six months.
Dressed in a work shirt with a black and red plaid jacket, Lamb said that he is always ready to work.
“I do anything that needs to be done,” Lamb said. “I’m the boss, the worker, I’ll deal with people; whatever is necessary.”
Over the past 30 years, the company has had its ups and downs. Sometimes there were no orders to fill, or cash flow was frighteningly low, to a fire five years ago that was started, apparently, from sawdust igniting.
Randall Whitaker, 40, of Shelbyville, Mich., has been playing the guitar on and off for the past 25 years. He has been playing his three Heritage guitars for the past 10 years.
“They’re a great quality of guitar with great sound, great playability and great looks,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker said that the reason he owns Heritage guitars is because they’re not only made in the United States but locally made in Kalamazoo.
“They’re so special because of the unique sound, their history and more time gets put into (making) them than other guitars,” Whitaker said.
Sharon Lamb, 69, of Fife Lake, Mich., said that ever since she met her husband Marv he’s always been a hard worker.
“He works hard at work and at home,” Sharon said. “When he wasn’t building guitars he was building something else.”
He is a man who likes to work with his hands: In his spare time, Lamb has built three houses. He gardens in the summer, splits wood for the wood-burning stove, plows driveways for his neighbors in the winter, does laundry, cooks breakfast on the weekends.
“He’s a hard worker,” she said.